There was a time when television shows were introduced by theme songs, innocuous little ditties that provided background information and set the tone for the shows. From these songs, new viewers learned how Mary would turn the world on with her smile, who we might see during our 30 minute layover in Petticoat Junction, and why the Bradys had three blonde daughters and three brunette sons. As television themes have matured, it appears that the need for bouncy theme music with silly lyrics has vanished.
The current trend in opening credits music for tv series seems to be blasting a minor single or CD cut from an alternative rock band (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Malcolm in the Middle). While these songs create appropriate moods for their respective shows, they provide no information on characters and events. Other shows, such as Frasier, use no opening music whatsoever, while still others (Will & Grace, The X-Files) play instrumental selections with no lyrics whatsoever.
The theme song for Ally McBeal is an exception. Although not written specifically for the show, Vonda Shephard’s “Searching My Soul” nevertheless tells us most of what we need to know about the show’s central character. Consider some of the lyrics: “I’ve been down this road / Walking the line, displaying my pride / And I have made mistakes in my life / That I just can’t hide” (in other words, Ally is far from perfect and will be the first to admit it). Or again, “I believe I am ready for what love has to bring” (she, like many of the show’s characters, is on a quest for her ideal mate). Or the chorus, “I’ve been searching my soul tonight / I know there’s so much more to life / Now I know I can shine the light / To find my way back home” (Ally knows only she can save herself from the dis-ease she feels).
The show’s theme song and background music, usually pop classics re-recorded by the talented Shephard, are just two of the means by which creator-writer-producer David E. Kelley exposes the desires of Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart), a single, thirty-ish Boston lawyer. Other tools include trick photography and fantasy-based special effects, such as Ally’s tongue sailing across the room to lick the face of a man she finds attractive. And then there are Ally’s frequent diatribes, to herself or anyone within earshot, that keep us apprised of her constantly changing feelings. All these devices make Ally McBeal unique among Kelley’s many tv series, because they focus on the hopes and dreams of one character. Kelley more typically spreads attentions across ensembles of interesting and oftentimes strange characters (as in Picket Fences, The Practice, or Boston Public). In Ally McBeal, he also has set up an eclectic company, but they are merely part of Ally’s hectic, disorganized world. Not much happens on the show without Ally’s input.
The series is not unlike Ally’s life—when it’s good, it’s very good; when it’s bad, it just plain sucks. In 1997, Ally McBeal premiered to massive critical fanfare and quickly became the hot topic around the water cooler. Its combination of fine drama and comedy made Ally McBeal an oddity for television, fitting neither the mold of the hour-long drama nor of the half-hour sitcom. The series continued to soar in season two, walking away with an Emmy for Best Comedy Series. But it lost its focus in the third season. Though not the sole creative force behind the series, Kelley has written every episode except five (all of which he co-wrote), so he was blamed for the show’s lapses during season three; many argued that Kelley, who had three other series on the air at the time, had spread himself too thin. Storylines were contrived and characters had no direction, and one of them, Billy (former cast member Gil Bellows), underwent such a radical and disagreeable change in personality that it was eventually explained as the result of an inoperable brain tumor.
And then came Robert. At first, the fourth season’s casting of Robert Downey, Jr. as a love interest for Ally seemed cheap and easy publicity for both show and actor. Maybe it was, but it paid off handsomely. His recent stay in prison has diminished none of Downey’s easygoing manner; as Ally’s new love interest, Larry, Downey is a perfect match for Flockhart, and Larry provides Ally with a clarity of purpose she had lost. Most of last season’s problems have been replaced with stories and dialogue that allow the characters to develop in ways that will keep viewers interested, and the addition of Downey has presented Flockhart with some of her finest moments as an actress.
The major credit for this rebirth lies not with Downey, but with Kelley, who has concocted a host of new characters to bring joy and turmoil to the show’s regulars. Renee (Lisa Nicole Carson), Ally’s roommate and best friend, has begun dating Jackson (Taye Diggs), the new, no-nonsense lawyer at Ally’s firm. And John (the entertaining Peter MacNicol), Ally’s boss and confidante, has become serious about Melanie (Anne Heche), a free-thinking former client with Tourette’s Syndrome. Viewers realize that these romances are doomed, as Downey, Diggs, and Heche are unlikely to give up their film careers to join the regular cast, but the new storylines may have ramifications for those remaining after the guest stars have departed. (There is the possibility that Downey will return, depending on the outcome of his upcoming trial for drug possession.)
With stronger writing than was evident last year, Ally McBeal now has a hopeful future. The show is at its best when the characters are involved in unusual circumstances or legal cases from which they learn a little bit about life, and viewers learn a little bit more about the characters. Two episodes from the show’s first two seasons are prime examples. In “Boy to the World,” Ally befriends a transvestite prostitute in an effort to get the young man off the streets. Initially, the episode is amusing, as Ally is introduced to the world of cross-dressers, but turns poignant when the young man returns to the streets one last time with fatal results. In the second episode, “Angels and Blimps,” Ally’s coworker Ling (Lucy Liu) takes the hopeless case of a boy seeking to sue God for giving him leukemia. As the boy’s disease progresses, the tenderness beneath Ling’s cold exterior is subtly revealed, and viewers mourn the boy’s death, along with the devastated lawyer. Not all of the show’s better episodes feature death and dying, but these two represent Ally McBeal at its finest, with elements both humorous and heartrending.
While the much of this season’s focus has been on the developing relationship between Ally and Larry, other characters have been highlighted as well. In one episode, “The Man With the Bag,” Nelle (Portia de Rossi), another of Ally’s co-workers, must defend her father, fired from his job as a teacher because he believes he is Santa Claus: her embarrassment at her father’s delusion is matched by her attempt to understand it. Yet another story arc featured new attorney Mark (James Le Gros), attracted to an ex-client, unaware that she is a pre-operative transsexual (F2M). His discovery of the truth while slow-dancing with his aroused date is at first amusing, but soon causes Mark considerable pain, as he is torn between his genuine feelings for the woman he thinks he knows and his confusion resulting from her revelation.
In addition to these dramatic events, the series has recovered its taste for whimsy particularly in the return of Ally’s bizarre fantasies. So, after Larry has temporarily left town, Ally is haunted by visions of Barry Manilow singing sad love songs to her. He appears in her bedroom, on the street, in a stall in the unisex bathroom at work, everywhere she turns, to the point that, when Ally encounters the real Barry Manilow performing at her favorite nightclub, she assumes he is her fantasy and assaults the singer in front of all her friends and co-workers.
If Kelley continues to write episodes such as these, Ally McBeal should remain a water cooler topic for years to come. If, however, he abandons character development for the affected plots that plagued the show last season, then perhaps Shephard will have to go back and rewrite the lyrics to the theme song: “I’ve been down this road / It seems I’m going down it once more / I’ll keep making mistakes / ‘Till the powers at Fox show me the door.” Let’s hope the show doesn’t reach that point.